It was a jaw-dropping moment when Illinois Rep. Monique Davis lashed out at Rob Sherman earlier this month. Davis, a Chicago Democrat and member of the Illinois legislature, apparently didn’t believe that an atheist had a right to testify before a committee of the Illinois House.
It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat! (Link)
There is audio of her hostile rant here. You really have to listen to it to understand how vitriolic she was–not to mention her disregard for the Constitution.
This outburst has generated plenty outrage, and plenty has already been said and written about this, including a press release from Council for Secular Humanism calling for Davis to resign, and Keith Olbermann’s declaring her “The Worst Person in the World” for April 8 (beating out perennial favorites Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly).
Davis’ Wikipedia page instantly graduated from “stub” status the day after her comments made her notorious.
However, Davis may just be the kind of crackpot that atheism needs.
This is a life lesson I learned two years ago: Ranting lunatics can be a blessing.
The lesson of Green Skate Lab
I was involved in building a public skatepark in Washington DC, called Green Skate Lab. The project was rejected by at least two DC communities who didn’t want skateboarding riffraff coming to their neighborhoods. Finally, DC Parks and Recreation, allowed construction to begin at Langdon Park, a quiet, predominantly African-American residential neighborhood. This time, they didn’t bother holding community meetings. By the time the predictable community fuss arose, the bowl was 80% complete.
A lot of misinformation had spread among the neighborhood. There were rumors that “some rich guy” had paid off the city to allow a for-profit park to be built.
A meeting was called, and held at the construction site. The people behind the project were primed with tons of information on the social, recreational, environmental, educational, spiritual, etc. benefits of a community skatepark. But the community members were having none of it. They legitimately felt they should have been consulted before the project was approved. Some seemed to have no specific objection to skateboarding. The park as it was was fairly disused, and they liked it that way; they didn’t want anything happening that would bring more recreation to the park.
The meeting reached an impasse, and nobody was satisfied.
Then a miracle occurred.
A little old lady with a cane rose to her feet, and spoke. I don’t know who she was, but those assembled gave her noticeable deference.
“I know what’s happening here,” she said. “These people want our black kids to ride skateboards!”
Holy shit! Was this the elephant in the skatepark that I hadn’t seen? Cultural imperialism from skate culture?
“Well,” she continued, actually raising her cane and shaking it like Granny Clampett, “black kids don’t skateboard; black kids play basketball.”
Terri Nostrand (pictured above, with Granny seated behind her), was the driving force behind the project, and a DC public school teacher. She had the foresight to stack the meeting with her skateboarding students. They were black kids with skateboards, and Granny had just offended them. Moments before they were visibly bored, but no more. A few of them lined up to speak after Granny, and declared themselves skateboarders.
But it wasn’t the kids that turned the tide that afternoon, it was Granny.
All of the other community members there were reasonable people with a legitimate gripe. Now they had to choose whether to line up behind a crank, or allow the meeting to end with no definite resolution–virtually guaranteeing that the skatepark’s momentum would continue. The skatepark opponents chose not to follow Granny’s crotchety act.
Back to Rep. Monique Davis, the anti-atheist from Illinois
There are nearly 10,000 Web pages that refer to her hostility towards Rob Sherman. But, as far as I can tell, the right wing punditocracy has been pretty silent about this issue. This was their opportunity to embrace an African American woman Democrat who stood up to one of those church-state-separation types–an atheist no less. You’d think they’d be pursuing her like she was Joe Lieberman in drag, cheering “Finally, a Democrat who will put a goddamn secularist in his place!” You’d think she’d be offered a seat of honor at the Republican National Convention–in front of a camera, and preferably a spotlight. Instead, they’re keeping pretty silent about it–just as the Langdon neighbors in Washington DC responded to Granny’s tirade.
To her partial credit, Davis apologized to Sherman, and he forgave her. However, it was one of those, “I’m sorry, but I have an excuse” apologies–the kind that I teach the kids to never use. There is no but–no excuse for lashing out with bigotry.
Freedom of religion and the freedom to have no religion are core American values, so I will remember Monica Davis outburst. She spoke what many people believe about atheists, she just spoke it crazy. When I have the chance, I will offer people the chance to stand with her, or to step slowly away.
Update June 2008:
I found a larger picture of Terry and Granny. Click here to see Granny in her glorious crotchitude.
Update February 2019:
Monique Davis retired from the Illinois House of Representatives in 2017. Two years later her political career is summarized on Wikipedia by two highlights: Her comments on atheism, and a forgettable spat with Rod Blagojevich, one of Illinois’ four governors to serve time in prison. Remember him? He wanted to auction off Obama’s Senate seat after Obama won the presidency. Anyone singled out by Blagojevich for criticism can’t be all bad.